Newswise — At the age of 17, Whitney Ford, a senior at Plainfield East High School, is already steps ahead of her peers in honing her research skills, thanks to a mentorship program supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

The opportunity, known as the Argonne Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) High School Research Program, enabled Ford to study deep learning methods to identify an individual’s gender using a photo of their iris.

“They will start this program in high school, and from there we can continue supporting them through their Ph.D. They can return as college interns here or go to another lab. And one day, they may even work here,” - Maria Curry-Nkansah, chief operations officer, Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering Directorate.

“Not only has the program helped me with my research, but it has also helped me improve my public speaking skills and build my confidence. I am really confident now,” Ford said.

Argonne ACT-SO prepares students to compete in the national ACT-SO competition, a contest that celebrates the achievements of African-American high school students. The students compete in local competitions, and winners go on to compete at the annual national competition, which was held this year in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ford, a gold medal winner for her research, was among 30 aspiring scientists who participated in the Argonne ACT-SO High School Program and who were mentored by researchers at the laboratory. The students were honored on Aug. 17 during a ceremony at Argonne after successfully completing an award-winning nine months of innovative research projects.

This year, the national awardees took home three gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal. Locally, they garnered seven gold, seven silver and six bronze medals. Categories included chemistry, computer science, earth and space sciences and physics.

Founded in 2013, the Argonne ACT-SO program is run by the Argonne African-American Employee Resource Group and collaborates with DuPage County ACT-SO. The nine-month program pairs Argonne researchers with highly motivated African-American high school students to perform research projects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“By generously sharing their time, these volunteers have helped create deep connections between African-American employees and Argonne staff in general, and encouraged greater job satisfaction and employee retention,” said Argonne’s interim Director Paul Kearns. “They also have brought the lab recognition through successes of students from the Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program.”

Along with providing mentorship, the program is a springboard for young people to learn about STEM careers and make lasting connections. If students need an internship or other educational opportunities, they can reach out to Argonne to assist with those connections through the program, said Maria Curry-Nkansah, the chief operations officer of Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering Directorate.

“This program attracts students early to STEM, pushes the limits of what they can imagine accomplishing, thereby producing confident, high achieving college STEM majors.” said Curry-Nkansah.

Argonne ACT-SO also helps participants beyond their school years, she said.

“Argonne can continue supporting them after high school through their Ph.D. They can return as college interns here or go to another laboratory. And one day, they may even work here,” said Curry-Nkansah. “We’ll help them with those critical networks.”

ACT-SO also helps participants by showcasing their talents, said Harold Gaines, an Argonne engineering specialist and program volunteer. 

“There are some very talented individuals and we can give them exposure to Argonne, which can help push them along to the next level,” Gaines said.

Jalen Crump, 18, earned a full, $75,000 scholarship to the University of Chicago this fall, along with other awards, including a gold medal and silver medal for his ACT-SO research.

“This has been a great learning and networking opportunity for me,” said Crump, an incoming freshman. “This experience taught me that there are people just like me who can be successful. And that is the greatest feeling overall.”

The Afro-Academics, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics is a major youth initiative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Founded in 1978, by the renowned author and journalist, Vernon Jarrett, ACT-SO provides a forum through which African American youth demonstrate academic, artistic, and scientific prowess and expertise, thereby gaining the same recognition often reserved for entertainers and athletes. The objective of ACT-SO is to prepare, recognize and reward African American youth who exemplify scholastic and artistic excellence. NAACP branches and youth units throughout the country conduct annual competitions for students in grades 9 - 12. Gold medalists from the local competitions then compete against gold medalists from other cities around the nation at the National ACT-SO Competition that is held during the NAACP's Annual Convention in July.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.